John Velasquez once lived at our monastery and now lives in New Mexico. Here, he stands in front of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Santa Fe.
Sister Laura Walker was a woman who understood the power of Benedictine hospitality. In the 1950s, she was Prioress at St. Scholastica Monastery and was traveling through Colorado. There, she met a young man who had earned a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago, but had no resources to live in the city. She invited him to live in the Chaplain’s House at the monastery.
That one act of hospitality turned into thousands when the man grew up to become an artist and educator. He has devoted his life to extending those same Benedictine values of hospitality and care to the world around him.
How do we know? Earlier this year, our Communications Coordinator met him unexpectedly while traveling in New Mexico. She kept in touch with him and he recently wrote his reflections about how he came to live at the monastery and how it impacted his life.
We are reprinting his letter, with his permission, in its entirety because it is such a profound and beautiful story. May it touch your heart this season, as it did ours, and inspire you to share the Benedictine values of hospitality and care with those around you.
I was born and raised in Antonito, Colorado, a small speck in the San Louis Valley, north of Santa Fe and west of Taos. No industry, only farming and ranching, a hard, outdoor life, made harsher by extreme weather. My entire elementary, middle, and high school education was received from the Atchison, Kansas Benedictine Sisters who came to teach in the depression-bankrupted public school system of Conejos County and its remote rural villages.
Through the mentoring of Sister Gratia Scherman, my art teacher in my senior year, the Art Institute of Chicago awarded me one of two national scholarships, an incredible, improbable recognition, but an opportunity with additional expenses my family could not afford. Providentially, Sister Laura came on a visitation and hearing my story, devised a plan which made the impossible happen for me. I owe her much, as well as Sister Elizabeth (Barbara) Mallinger, the Community Bursar at the time, who oversaw my finances.
During my year at the Art Institute, I lived at St. Scholastica Monastery in the basement apartment of the Chaplain’s house. Father Basil was then in residence. The Sisters employed me as a janitor, cleaning classrooms, paying me a salary which helped me while attending school and taking my meals with the other employees. A highlight was serving the Sisters’ Sunday Mass and other special occasions when then Cardinal Meyer and other dignitaries came to worship with the Sisters in their beautiful chapel and its Maria Loch inspired frescoes. I often attended Vespers and Compline after a day at school and I fondly recall a small Carravagio-like painting outside the chapel door, sparking a continuing interest in religious art. The sacred space of the chapel and the beautifully landscaped grounds and gardens are favorite memories.
The Sisters embraced me and treated me as their own. I remember their smiles of appreciation and encouragement when I shared my art work with them. I could not afford to return home to Colorado that Christmas but was included in all their celebrations, making it one of the most memorable Holy Nights ever.
Sister Vivian was Sacristan, an inspiration and model to me, arranging all the liturgical functions with such beauty and respect. The Gregorian chant took me to heaven, deepening my faith and moving me to a great appreciation for the environment and caring compassion the Sisters shared with me. I owe so much to their living of the Benedictine Rule before my very eyes and the shaping of my own character and manhood.
Later, during a time with the Dominicans, I received a degree in Philosophy from Aquinas Institute, but after much prayer and discernment, I chose the layman’s life, returning to my art, receiving degrees from the University of Albuquerque. Since, for forty years, I have taught Philosophy, Ethics, and Religion at the college and university levels in Kentucky and California, retiring in 2002.
Mirroring the Sisters concern for service to the needs of the poor, my volunteer life is dedicated to the works of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and to an organization called Wells for Life, building water resources in Africa and promoting education for girls. I donate my art for fundraisers, generating financial support for several other charities, also. Politically, women’s issues of health, economic parity, elected office, access to all educational and financial benefits are priorities of my efforts and attention.
I continue the healing and calming work of making art, primarily paintings of angels, Virgin Marys, and Madonnnas, but also promoting and supporting other artists of like spiritual sensibility.
My life-defining hope is that the Sisters would be proud of their work through me.
With all my love and gratitude,
John A. Velasquez